Trump blasts Russia actions before Putin meeting
President finds enthusiastic crowd in Poland
President Trump on Thursday sharpened the lines of division between Washington and Moscow a day ahead of his highly anticipated first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticizing Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria and praising NATO for its vital role in defending Europe against aggression.
Speaking to tens of thousands of enthusiastic Poles in Warsaw, Mr. Trump laid out clear expectations for changes in Russian behavior as he prepared to meet Mr. Putin face to face on Friday in Hamburg, Germany, the site of the annual Group of 20 summit, where riot police were deploying water cannons and tear gas in clashes with throngs of demonstrators.
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran, and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and the defense of civilization itself,” Mr. Trump said in Krasinski Square, as the audience in the former Soviet-bloc nation chanted his name and repeatedly interrupted his speech with applause.
But Mr. Putin promptly delivered another affront to the U.S. ahead of his meeting with Mr. Trump, as Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution drafted by the U.S. that called for “significant measures” in response to North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
While Mr. Trump had tough words for Russia, he continued to voice doubts about claims that Moscow meddled in the U.S. presidential election to tilt the scales against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
At a news conference in Warsaw, Mr. Trump repeated his assertions that Russia likely hacked U.S. election systems, but he said he doesn’t trust the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.
“I agree. I think it was Russia, and I think it was probably other people and/ or other countries,” Mr. Trump said. “And I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows for sure.”
Mr. Trump slammed former President Barack Obama for doing nothing about the hacking, saying the Democrat made a political decision to stand down. He said Mr. Obama ignored Russian meddling in the election because he believed, as did most other people, that Mrs. Clinton would win the election.
“The reason is he thought Hillary was going to win,” Mr. Trump said. “If he thought I was going to win, he would have done plenty about it. His people said he choked. I don’t think he choked.”
Mr. Obama reportedly learned of the Russian meddling as early as August but did not take action until after the Nov. 8 election, when he imposed sanctions on Moscow and ejected dozens of suspected Russian spies from the U.S.
With multiple investigations in Washington looking into the Russian hacking and suspected collusion between Trump campaign officials and Moscow, Democratic lawmakers jumped on Mr. Trump’s less-than-certain answer about Russian interference and accused him of showing weakness toward Russia before his highstakes meeting with Mr. Putin.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Mr. Trump’s comments “directly undermine U.S. interests.”
“This is not putting America first, but continuing to propagate his own personal fiction at the country’s expense,” said Mr. Schiff, who called on the president to challenge Mr. Putin on the election hacking.
“President Trump must have the courage to raise the issue of Russian interference in our elections directly with President Putin; otherwise, the Kremlin will conclude he is too weak to stand up to them. That would be a historic mistake, with damaging implications for our foreign policy for years to come,” Mr. Schiff said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and four other top Democrats urged Mr. Trump in a letter to “discuss the elephant in the room” when he meets with Mr. Putin.
“President Putin directed an attack on the most central tenet of our democracy — our election,” the lawmakers wrote. “Not raising this matter with President Putin would be a severe dereliction of the duty of the office to which you were elected.”
Noting the midterm elections next year, they told Mr. Trump that “the upcoming elections cannot be a playground for President Putin.”
Whether or not Mr. Trump plans to confront Mr. Putin on the election, he is certain to challenge the Russian leader over Moscow’s military support of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. and its allies in Syria are fighting the Islamic State terrorist group — a fight that has drawn U.S. forces into close calls with Russian and Syrian troops.
Mr. Trump had high hopes at the start of his presidency that Russia would cooperate with the U.S. in destroying the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, denying the terrorist group a home base. He has praised Mr. Putin as a “strong leader” who routinely got the better of Mr. Obama in negotiations.
Although relations with Moscow have deteriorated over Syria, Mr. Trump still has hopes of working with Mr. Putin. His comments in Poland on Thursday seemed designed to keep Mr. Putin at arm’s length without shutting off any chance of deal-making.
In discussions Thursday night at the G-20 summit, Mr. Trump agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the need for “re-energizing” the Minsk agreement, which calls for a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and for a peace settlement.
In one move sure to rankle Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump voiced a clear commitment to NATO’s Article 5 principle of common defense, reassuring Europeans who had worried about his support for the alliance. He said Europeans should never question the U.S. commitment to NATO.
“The United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment,” Mr. Trump said.
The president raised concerns among allies in the spring when, during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, he neglected to mention Article 5.
Mr. Trump also poked a symbolic finger in Mr. Putin’s eye by praising Poland’s efforts to deploy a missile defense shield, a move strenuously opposed by Moscow.
“We applaud Poland for its decision to move forward this week on acquiring from the United States the battle-tested Patriot air and missile defense system — the best anywhere in the world,” Mr. Trump said.
But Mr. Trump reminded the audience in Poland, “Our defense is not just a commitment of money; it is a commitment of will.”